An Email Hack That Could Increase the Likelihood of Getting a Reply (and Possibly Make the World a Slightly Better Place for Everyone Too)

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What is the default phrase you use when ending an email?

“Regards”?

“Sincerely”?

“Cheers”?

“Thx”?

“Snet fmor ym iPnohe, lulz”? (if you’re shopping around for a new sign-off, there’s a fun – and long – list here)

Whatever closing you may be using at the moment, it turns out that the way you end an email could be more influential than you think. And not just in terms of how likely the recipient is to write back.

Depending on the context, the way you close your emails could affect the recipient’s sense of worth and value, and even influence how they respond to other people in their inbox.

Yeah, I know…that does seem like a bit of a reach. But stay with me for a moment, because the research is actually pretty interesting.

An intriguing email hack

A couple weeks ago, I stumbled across an article where the email productivity company Boomerang describes finding that emails with a closing that expressed gratitude (like “thanks”) had an average response rate of 62%, while emails without a gratitude-based closing (like “best”) had an average response rate of just 47.5%.

It seemed like a pretty handy email hack, but this wasn’t a true research study, so it made me wonder…is this really a thing? And if so, why does an expression of gratitude increase the likelihood of a response?

It turns out that others had wondered the same thing, and in a series of studies, a pair of researchers (Grant & Gino, 2010) tested the effect of neutral and grateful emails to see if grateful emails might lead to more “pro-social” behavior. As in, would expressing gratitude increase the likelihood of a receiving a helpful response? And if so, why?

Help with a cover letter?

Sixty-nine university students volunteers were told that they’d be providing a student with feedback on their job application cover letter as part of a career center study.

They received the cover letter in an email, and were asked to email their comments directly to the student – “Eric Sorenson” – within 24 hrs.

A day after sending Eric their feedback, participants received a reply from Eric’s email account.

Half of the participants (the control group) received a neutral email which acknowledged receiving their feedback, and asked for help with a second cover letter.

Specifically, this:

“Dear [name], I just wanted to let you know that I received your feedback on my cover letter. I was wondering if you could help with a second cover letter I prepared and give me feedback on it. The cover letter is attached. Can you send me some comments in the next 3 days?”

The other half of participants (gratitude group) on the other hand, received an email which included an expression of gratitude in addition to the request for additional help.

Their email said:

“Dear [name], I just wanted to let you know that I received your feedback on my cover letter. Thank you so much! I am really grateful. I was wondering if you could help with a second cover letter I prepared and give me feedback on it. The cover letter is attached. Can you send me some comments in the next 3 days?”

So what happened?

Gratitude makes a big difference

As you can probably guess, those who received the grateful emails were significantly more likely to help with the second cover letter. 66% vs. 32%!

The researchers could have stopped there, but they did a second study that extended their findings in ways that might be even more intriguing.

A second study

The next study started out the same way as the previous one, with 57 university students being asked to provide “Eric” with comments on his cover letter.

Once again, half of the participants (control group) received a neutral email from Eric, confirming that he received their feedback. Like:

“Dear [name], I just wanted to let you know that I received your feedback on my cover letter.”

Meanwhile, the other half of participants (gratitude group) received a more grateful email, like:

“Dear [name], I just wanted to let you know that I received your feedback on my cover letter. Thank you so much! I am really grateful.”

However, instead of Eric asking for help on a second cover letter, a day later, participants received an email from a totally different made-up student with the name “Steven Rogoff” – who wrote: 

“Hi [name], I understand that you participated in a Career Center study to help students improve their job application cover letters. I was wondering if you could give me feedback on a cover letter I prepared. The cover letter is attached. Would you be willing to help me by sending me some comments in the next two days?”

Just to clarify, at this point, the participants don’t know that they are still participating in a study. As far as they know, Steven is just some rando student reaching out for help.

So how did they respond?

Gratitude wins again!

Well, once again, participants who received the grateful email from Eric were about twice as likely to help this other totally random student Steven, as those in the control condition who received the neutral email, with 55% in the gratitude group responding with feedback, versus just 25% of those who received the neutral response.

So what are the implications and takeaways of this?

I’ll get to that in a moment, but the bigger question might be, why did these expressions of gratitude lead to a willingness to help others – even strangers who were not at all connected to the person who originally expressed gratitude?

Two theories

There are two theories about this.

One possibility is that expressions of gratitude increase our self-efficacy (i.e. our sense of competence), and when we feel more confident in our ability to be helpful, we’re more likely to do so.

The other possibility is that gratitude contributes to our sense of social worth, or the feeling that we are valued and can make a positive difference in others’ lives. And that when we feel our efforts to help are appreciated, we are more likely to extend ourselves in this way. If, on the other hand, we are not sure if our efforts are valued, or have concerns about whether people will accept or reject our help, we’re less likely to try.

So which is it?

Which theory wins?

Researchers had participants complete both a self-efficacy and social worth assessment.

And though both the participants’ self-efficacy and social worth scores increased after receiving the grateful emails in the two studies, only one of these factors was found to be a statistically significant link between gratitude and pro-social behavior.

Social worth.

In other words, at least in this series of studies, the likelihood of our helping is dependent not so much on whether we feel confident in our ability to help, but in how confident we are that our help will be valued, needed, and truly appreciated by others.

So what are the main takeaways from all of this?

Takeaways

Well, it’s easy to get lost in the daily grind of our lives and hyper-focused on the various challenges we’re facing. To worry about making rent, memorizing the last movement of a concerto for our next lesson, and keeping the kids from spending all day on YouTube in the midst of everything being cancelled.

Yet there are many people in our lives – from our kids’ piano teachers, composition teachers, volleyball coaches, and jiu jitsu instructors, to our ophthalmologists, dog groomers, and the many colleagues who agree to listen to us play and give us feedback, who go above and beyond to make each day a little better.

So I love the idea that taking a moment to reflect on why we’re grateful for their presence and expressing this to them, could not only make them feel more valued, needed, and appreciated, but that this could also contribute to a domino effect of behaviors that could positively impact the lives of others. How, in other words, a simple thank you today, could make the world a slightly better place for a stranger tomorrow. 🙂


References

Grant, A. M., & Gino, F. (2010). A little thanks goes a long way: Explaining why gratitude expressions motivate prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(6), 946–955. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017935

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Comments

23 Responses

  1. Good one! I read all your Sunday musings with interest…..and I’m “only” an amateur! This was special and reminds me to be more grateful….so, thanks, stay safe and keep noodlin” Sincerely/faithfully/iphoned/regards/cheers/thx!! Haydon

  2. I wonder what would have happened if the made-up student names in the gratitude study were female or foreign sounding?

  3. Thank you, Noa!
    I have been such an avid reader of your Bulletproof Musician posts for years; they never fail to start my Sundays off with a smile and with valuable advice. I frequently share with others what a treasured resource this is.
    Today’s column makes me regret that I haven’t more frequently expressed that gratitude to you. So, thank you very much! I truly appreciate your consistently excellent and thoughtful work.

    1. I think there may be a whole website devoted to the concept of gratitude, with many quotations and practical words of wisdom related to it.

      Also, I have been a fan of Albert Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy for years, but also, yes, the feeling of social worth is so important in motivating us to continue to do more. If we know we are making a positive difference for others – and that point is being recognized by the recipient – we naturally want to extend the help further. These days when I’ve been waiting on hold for a long time – and finally get to speak to someone, I start by thanking them for taking my call and often include the point that I know they’ve been dealing probably with a very heavy workload – Empathy is appreciated by others. Great studies here that verify what many of us may have suspected!!!! Thank you, Noa!!!!!

      Edy

      1. Thanks, Edy. That sounds like a smart (and kind) way to begin such a call. I used to work in a group practice, where we were the EAP provider for many local call center employees (for insurance companies, etc.). I think we all know intuitively that this must be a difficult, tiring, and thankless job, but working with these people taught me that the way we interact with them really does have an impact on their day and life, as it’s pretty relentless what they have to endure from one day to the next…

  4. Excellent article, Dr. Kageyama,
    As a teacher, editor, and writer, I know I respond far more generously with my time and energy to those who make me feel my effort is valued. It costs so little to express gratitude and yet can make all the difference. With much appreciation for all your insights, I look forward to your mail every Sunday.

  5. Thank you so much, Noa! I get so much out of your weekly postings, and I cannot overstate the benefit I took from your class with Rob Knopper—it was life-changing. I have learned to be kinder to myself in both practice and performance (more like a coach than a critic), and I feel like I have never played better. I am excited to continue to grow. Thank you so much for the very important work you do!

    1. Thank you Claire! I’m glad to hear that the audition bootcamp has had a lasting effect, and it’s awesome that your inner coach has continued to leave less space for the inner critic! =)

  6. Thank you for all you do, Noa. You have made and continue to make a huge impact on musicians and music teaching all around the world. I use the Suzuki method in my violin lessons and my students bow and say “thank you for teaching me” at the end of their lesson. I love that the method instills the idea of gratitude at each lesson. So Noa, thank you for teaching me!

    1. Thank you, Cathy! You know, I could be wrong, and I’m sure someone out there will know this better than I, but I think when I was in Japan studying as a kid, we did bow and thank Dr. Suzuki after lessons as part of the lesson ritual. Or maybe before the lesson? Something like that…would be curious to know if I’m remembering that right or just creating a false memory of some kind…

  7. Dear Dr. Noa, Thank you so very much for this valuable article! For years, one of my preferred closings not only for my own business letters, but especially for recommendations on behalf of students or colleagues has been some variation of “Please know that your [assistance, consideration, help, prompt reply, assessment–whatever] will be valued and appreciated sincerely. Thank you.” (Followed by a signature tag that fits the expression: Cordially, Appreciatively [if not already used in closing text], Gratefully [can be effective, but use it only for an exceptional occasion–otherwise, it undermines your own self-efficacy!], Your client/customer, Your colleague…

  8. I am a Suzuki violin teacher nearing retirement and thinking this Zoom teaching is pushing me over the edge to retirement. Today one of my parents expressed their thanks for me sticking it out and staying with their children through this. It made my day, and maybe my month!

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